An Idea Collector in Washington


December 09, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Confronted with an epidemic of murders perpetrated by young drug dealers, our typical reaction is to deploy more police cruisers, slap on curfews, build more prisons, threaten life sentences and electrocutions.

But Washington's Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, faced with a crescendo of street carnage that has claimed almost 1,800 lives in four years, is doing something quite unusual in the ambitious program she unveiled last week to curb crime. She's looking to new and creative solutions from other cities.

Ms. Dixon does advocate some typical ''get tough'' steps. She'd lower from 15 to 14 the age at which a juvenile who's just ''wasted'' someone can be tried as an adult. It's hardly too soon, she says, to change a system ''that requires us to treat dangerous teen-age killers as if they were innocent school boys.''

But the mayor is under no illusion that the virulent ''counterculture'' operating in Washington's poorest neighborhoods, will yield to cops or courts. Something far more imaginative is needed, she believes, to reach a ''lost generation'' of kids who've ''grown up without anchors, without values, without hope,'' who ''have no stake in our system.''

So she surveyed the national scene to find programs that show solid promise in deterring kids from crime, in starting to reweave the shredded social fabric in chaos-convulsed neighborhoods. Her most constant theme is prevention, establishing some islands of stability, by demolishing the wall of isolation that separates poor ghetto neighborhoods from the rest of society.

Middle-class people, says Mayor Dixon, ''have become so numb, so overwhelmed'' by the murderous street scene ''that we've allowed ourselves to become armchair patriots in this war of values.'' She's asked citizens to volunteer to mentor a District child and announced she's become a ''big sister'' herself to a 16-year-old girl.

Ms. Dixon wants to emulate programs like Maryland's Friends of the Family centers, which work in neighborhood settings to help young, inexperienced parents learn how to start nurturing and stop swatting their babies.

She'd add preventive health care -- ranging from sonograms for pregnant women to screening and treatment for children from infancy through high school.

From New Jersey she'd import the idea of creating centers, right in the junior high schools, to give impressionable early teens a positive alternative to the streets -- a friendly, supportive place where kids are offered recreation and help with everything from homework to problems at home. The idea is to ''arm'' them with self-esteem, inoculate them against the lures of the drug-and-gun culture.

What about kids who exhibit extremely aggressive behavior, disrupting normal schools -- the youngsters most likely to end up in police lineups by their late teens? For them, Mayor Dixon would borrow an idea from Los Angeles -- alternative in-city boarding schools for 11-to-15-year-olds, each with a manageable 75 to 100 students.

The boarding schools, on top of normal school courses, would help kids with conflict resolution and dealing with stress. Students' families would be drawn in for counseling. Sports would be emphasized, to redirect physical aggressiveness in a controlled way.

The problem now is to make all this work coherently, in a city unnerved by signs that the murders are starting to spread outside the immediate drug-infested areas.

Mayor Dixon puts a surprisingly low price tag -- $20 million -- on her initiative. She suggests she'd get the money from the federal government, other District programs and foundations. But details remain murky, and the cash may not be forthcoming.

Skeptics wonder whether the District's unwieldy, billion-dollar social-service bureaucracy is prepared to move nimbly and responsively in new directions.

There's some peril that Ms. Dixon may be taking programs and labels that look good elsewhere, without grasping their real secrets of success. Community policing is one example. The District has recently reduced staffing of squad cars to a single officer in order to free 200 officers for foot patrol. But the mayor and her police chief don't yet seem to have made a full commitment to permanent assignment of officers on trouble-plagued blocks, training them to work closely with residents to assure order and safety.

And without building support among residents in every public-housing block, how can Ms. Dixon make good on her pledge to protect witnesses in murder cases?

Nevertheless, the comprehensive scope of the Dixon program is good news. In time it may provide valuable lessons for other cities now afflicted by murderous youth. Whatever the nuances, America should resonate to the message Mayor Dixon sends Washington's children: ''If you are on the way to trouble we will help you stay out of trouble. If you are already in trouble we will do everything we can to save you. But if you are the 'trouble,' we will take whatever action is necessary to protect our community.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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